White House Press Corps Resists Background Briefings

The Obama administration is facing criticism from White House correspondents and their news organizations for its practices in the White House briefing room, including the continued use of background briefings, or selective off-the-record meetings held with reporters, and Obama's decision to select and notify in advance some reporters before he calls on them in press conferences.

The use of background briefings, which require journalists in attendance to attribute information to an unnamed source, such as a “senior administration official,” has drawn complaints from the Washington, D.C. press in the past, but the issue reemerged in May 2009 after Obama nominated Judge Sonia Sotomayor for the U.S. Supreme Court. Following the announcement of Sotomayor’s nomination, two White House officials held a background briefing on May 26 to fill in a few details regarding the president’s choice, prompting several journalists to object, according to a May 27 column by Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post.

The journalists protested that “there was no reason the officials couldn’t speak on the record,” Kurtz wrote. “One of the briefers, senior adviser David Axelrod, would be making a similar case on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, and PBS within hours. But Press Secretary Robert Gibbs stood his ground. No names could be attached.”

According to a May 27, 2009 article in Editor & Publisher, Jennifer Loven, an Associated Press reporter and president of the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA), responded to the background briefing with a statement on behalf of the group.

“We protest in the strongest terms the Obama administration’s frequent use of briefings done on a background basis, without specific names attached to the information, especially when the same officials briefing often appear ubiquitously on television shows with similar information. Details of the president’s policies and decision-making should be given in the open, in part because it helps the public determine its level of confidence in those details,” the statement said. According to Kurtz’s column, Loven wrote that such openness was particularly important in the case of a Supreme Court nomination, “when the issue does not involve sensitive material such as national security information.”

Gibbs responded to the WHCA letter, telling Kurtz it was “interesting” that, contrary to the complaints about background briefings, the AP had no qualms about relying on unnamed “officials” in its early articles on Sotomayor’s nomination. “I’m not sure today is the day I’d make that argument,” Gibbs said.

James Rainey, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, wrote on May 27 that although the issue of background briefings has been a point of contention with White House correspondents for years, the trouble with the Obama administration continuing the practice is the inherent incongruity with its message of change. “Why would a White House that promised more transparency insist on anonymity for the two officials who spoke to the press?” Rainey wrote. “I do think Team Obama has continued a distasteful and potentially damaging practice. … Just because Washington culture has cornered reporters into occasionally accepting anonymous sourcing as a necessary evil, doesn’t mean a ‘change’ administration should insist on reinforcing the same old ways.”

The tension between White House reporters and Obama administration officials over background briefings began as early as January 22, 2009, the day Gibbs gave his first press briefing. A post written the same day by reporter Jeff Zeleny on The New York Times political blog, The Caucus, criticized the Obama administration for continuing the practice of background briefings with a briefing by an unnamed official about Guantanamo Bay, asking, “Does an administration that has pledged to be the most open and transparent one ever really need to have routine briefings be on background, by an official who can’t be named?” (For more on reporters’ early criticisms of Obama media management practices, see “Obama Promises More Government Openness; Skeptics Demand Immediate Results” in the Winter 2009 Silha Bulletin.)

In a May 29, 2009 column, New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt said Washington’s competitive journalistic culture can inhibit reporters’ ability to achieve transparency, calling it a “city steeped in the culture of anonymity.”

“Pervasive anonymity enhances the credibility of neither the news media nor an administration that came to office promising transparency,” Hoyt wrote. “It may seem naive to think that an entrenched culture in which both sides have used each other for decades can change, but a similar effort four years ago produced some temporary improvement in the Bush administration, which was much less committed to openness.”

A June 23 press conference with President Obama drew further criticism from the press when it appeared that the president prearranged a question from the Huffington Post’s Nico Pitney.

According to a June 23 post by Michael Calderone, a writer for the blog Politico, Obama called on Pitney second, addressing him by name. “Nico, I know you and all across the Internet, we’ve been seeing a lot of reports coming out of Iran,” Obama said. “I know there may actually be questions from people in Iran who are communicating through the Internet. Do you have a question?”

Pitney responded with a question from an Iranian. “Under which conditions would you accept the election of Ahmadinejad, and if you do accept it without any significant changes in the conditions there, isn’t that a betrayal of the – of what the demonstrators there are working towards?” This exchange was problematic, Calderone wrote, because “reporters typically don’t coordinate their questions for the president before press conferences.”

Kurtz reported in February that journalists were bothered by Obama’s practice of deciding the day before his news conferences which reporters to call on and notifying them in advance. Salon.com columnist Glenn Greenwald observed in a February 12 post that former President Bush was also known to use a pre-arranged list of reporters to call on for questions.

In a June 24 column for The Washington Post, Dana Milbank compared the exchange between Pitney and Obama to one of the scripted soap operas that typically appear during the afternoon when Obama held his June 23 press conference. Milbank wrote that Obama knew Pitney would be present because White House aides had called him the day before to invite him, and even escorted him into the press conference. “They told him the president was likely to call on him, with the understanding that he would ask a question about Iran,” Milbank wrote.

The White House responded by acknowledging that it did reach out to Pitney before the press conference, telling him that it was possible he would be called upon. “In the absence of an Iranian press corps in Washington, it was an innovative way to get a question directly from an Iranian,” said Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton.

– Ruth DeFoster

Silha Research Assistant



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